After a three year hiatus, Seattle, Washington-based band, Fleet Foxes, returned with their third studio album, “Crack-Up,” their first release in six years. The record has proven to be a significant departure from the happy-go-lucky days of their folk-rock beginnings, exhibiting a critical evolution for the band in its move towards a gloomier, denser atmosphere.
Like many others, ”Crack-Up” is an album rooted in a journey of self-discovery, specifically the journey of lead singer and principal songwriter Robin Pecknold, who underwent a series of massive life changes following Fleet Foxes’ gradual dissolution in 2011. Pecknold was left creatively and emotionally drained after the release of the band’s second album, “Helplessness Blues,” in that same year, and subsequently moved to Portland, Oregon, where he abandoned music altogether. He backpacked alone through Hawaii and Nepal, shaved his signature beard, and eventually enrolled in a special program for atypical undergraduates at Columbia University.
Feeling unfulfilled, Pecknold returned to the studio with fellow bandmates Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo and Morgan Henderson in mid-2016 to begin work on “Crack-Up.” Subsequently, they created a record that delves into subject matter and compositional styles that the band seldom dared to draw from previously.
The name of the album is a reference to a collection of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, titled The “Crack-Up,” written in 1936.
The essays deal with Fitzgerald’s personal, psychological and physical breakdown as well as the socio-political breakdown experienced by most of the world during the time of its publication. Much of Fleet Foxes’ work addresses the same issues, with neither the personal nor the political off limits for discussion.
In a response to a negative review by Stereogum, which characterized the band as socially and politically neutral, Pecknold stated that the song “Cassius, -” was written to memorialize the protests against the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016. This inclusion of such a heavy and publically relevant topic is a new angle for the band, a matter that is dealt with firmly yet a bit obscurely in several tracks on “Crack-Up.”
In terms of composition, some elements of the record are unmistakably on-brand: the soaring harmonies, the heavily atmospheric drive that lends itself to long, cross-country car rides, mountain hikes and rainy days in the upper West Coast. The album clings to its almost medieval sounding folk origins and its emphasis on sophisticated lyrics – the values that solidified Fleet Foxes as an indie icon since their debut in 2008.
Nonetheless, “Crack-Up” maintains a sense of darkness that is not present in the band’s freshman or sophomore debuts. The album reads less like Fleet Foxes and more like a Justin Vernon opus, complete with low droning horns and haunting, excessively echoed vocals. It jumps from contemplative lows to towering highs in a manner that is almost jarring.
The opening track, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” begins with Pecknold’s surprisingly moody and monotone vocals stating “I am all that I need, And I’ll be ‘till I’m through,” before almost immediately shifting to a sudden crescendo of ringing guitars. This stylistic element shows a growth for the band, a move towards more elaborate instrumental compositions.
In retrospect, however, one realizes the record is both propelled forward and nearly swallowed whole by this relative complexity. The incessant crooning and fragile instrumentals of earlier tracks such as “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” are left in the past, as well as the roaring folk-rock tendencies of tunes like “Grown Ocean.” In this way, “Crack-Up” loses some of the intimacy present in previous albums, and struggles to regain it through its lyrical vulnerability and the late “coming of age” backstory from Pecknold.
Even with this clearly observable stylistic shift, much of the album flows by quickly and unnoticed. There are no particularly stunning musical or lyrical revelations, only a few quiet moments of beauty within a sort of dreamlike state. If you are looking for a standout track, there are none – upon the first few listens it is virtually impossible to distinguish between songs on the record. Although this allows “Crack-Up” to flow as one seamless, coordinated work of art, much of the album’s emotional impact is forgotten through repetition and tedium.
“Crack-Up” feels less like the musical reveal of Pecknold’s inner truth and more like the pursuance of complexity and intricacy for a sliver of pretentious originality. For fans of the band’s original work, this record is lacking, which begs the question: for Fleet Foxes, and folk-rock in general, is it true that sometimes less is more?